“Our 16-year-old son is in deep trouble,” announces Kay, 42, an administrative assistant to the president of a small manufacturing firm, “and the way my husband is handling the problem is tearing the whole family apart.” Every night, Kay reports, their dinner table turns into a battleground with Howard chewing Jason out and Jason storming away from the table. “My daughter and I are wrecks by the time the meal is over,” adds Kay.
Kay and Howard have suspected for months that Jason might be hanging around with a bad crowd, but they were shocked when the school informed them marijuana had been found in his locker. “Jason swears that the stuff is not his, but now he’s under suspicion by the police as well as the school authorities,” she reports.
Unfortunately, Howard’s response to this distressing problem is making everything worse, she claims. “Howard harangues and belittles Jason,” she adds, and his constant put-downs are making him even more rebellious. “There’s a lot of good in that boy - he’s very talented in music and drama, though he’s performing dismally in his academic subjects - but you’d never know it to hear his father talk.”
Kay believes they should encourage their son by showing their love and support. Instead, Howard lashes out with criticisms directed at Jason and her. “He accuses me of giving in to the kids and insists that both children participate more actively in household chores. But I think childhood should be a time to play and be free,” Kay says.
Married 17 years, Howard and Kay have always shared parenting and household responsibilities and, until now, seen eye-to-eye on issues large and small.
Howard, 45, son of a marine who believed in physical punishment, is convinced Kay’s refusal to back him up on discipline is the crux of their problems. “Jason is a very smart boy,” says Howard, choosing his words carefully. “He used to be an A student and sang in the church choir, but now he’s spoiled rotten and has turned into a liar and a pot smoker.”
When Jason misbehaved as a child, Howard would suggest a spanking, but Kay resisted. Now that Jason is doing poorly in school, she doesn’t believe they should show displeasure when he brings home Ds.
Howard is increasingly worried about his son. He brings up his concerns at dinner, he says, because that’s the only time he has a chance to talk with him. “I also want to set an example for our daughter. She shouldn’t think we’re letting her brother get away with murder,” he says firmly.
“When Kay doesn’t support me,” Howard adds, “it tells me loud and clear that she’s lost all respect for me.” Howard thinks he knows the reason. “I haven’t been as successful as we both hoped,” he notes, “but I wish my wife would believe that I’ve worked like a dog to make her and the kids happy.”
When parents disagree on discipline
“A marriage will inevitably run into trouble when parents are on opposite sides of the discipline fence,” notes Dean Smith, a marriage counselor in Orange County, California. In this case, Howard’s deep frustration with his own achievements underlies his acerbic criticism of his son. He’s afraid that Jason will fail, just as he thinks he has.
Many parents argue over discipline - whether their focus is a teenager on drugs or a 5-year-old who refuses to cooperate. Here’s how you can find a way out of a discipline dead-end:
Discipline is not a my way/your-way battle. Acknowledge that the differences in your parenting styles usually stem from profound differences in the way you were raised. Talk about past experiences so you are both aware of how they affect your attitudes and actions now.
Effective discipline blends a desire to teach and need to stay connected. When parents undermine each other, children get caught in the cross-fire. Recognize that you both have valid lessons for your child, albeit in differing ways.
Children can accommodate differences between parents if those disagreements are handled in a healthy way. When children see that you argue but also work toward compromise, they learn you can fight without losing out on love.
If you can’t find a compromise, take turns surrendering. You may be at odds, but try saying: “I don’t agree with you on this one, but I’m willing to try it your way.” This trusting gesture goes a long way to improving the intimacy between you.